Staying Active, Staying Strong

Wendy KohrtDr. Wendy Kohrt is founder of the IMAGE (Investigations in Metabolism, Aging, Gender and Exercise) research group at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. She shares some valuable findings about preventing physical decline that fit with AICR's advice about cancer prevention.

As we age , inactivity contributes to the loss of muscle strength and bone density. Between ages 40 and 50, a slow rate of decline in biological systems becomes more noticeable. We lose about 10 percent of our muscle mass each decade if we don't exercise, and more as age advances. Age-related muscle loss can lead to fall-related injuries and early entry into assisted living facilities. It's a problem that costs the U.S. close to $20 billion annually. In middle age, it is extremely important to become and remain active, because the rate of aging can accelerate beginning around age 70, according to Dr. Kohrt.

"If women would make a concerted effort to stay active through menopause, they might be able to prevent some metabolic changes," Dr. Kohrt says, referring to bone and muscle loss. But moving more at any age is good advice.

Reaping the Benefits

Muscle loss may be caused by hormonal changes, oxidative damage and inflammation. While hormone-replacement therapy or drugs treat individual symptoms, physical activity has many more benefits, including:

  • reducing risks of osteoporosis, cancer or recurring cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes;
  • improving mental health and maintaining cognitive function; and
  • keeping up muscle mass, strength and function.

Studies with lab animals show that exercise has similar positive effects on metabolic rate and weight management as hormone-replacement therapy, she adds.

AICR recommends getting 30 minutes or more a day of moderate physical activity and striving for 60 minutes of moderate or 30 minutes of vigorous activity each day.

Fight Decline by Moving More

Middle Aged Woman in sweats and towel Flexing her ArmDr. Kohrt recommends doing three different types of exercise:

  • Endurance (aerobic) exercises – such as walking, climbing stairs or jogging to help keep heart and lungs healthy and burn fat;
  • Strength training, which helps bones as well as muscles. Strengthening can use your body's weight, as in doing squats or pushups; and working out with free (hand-held) or machine-suspended weights or stretchy resistance bands.
  • Balance and core (abdominal) strength activities are important to keep coordination and strength, and they can reduce your risk of falling. Try a class that focuses on balancing exercises or look into yoga classes.

Dr. Kohrt says that as we age, having to make sudden movements makes people more likely to lose their balance. She suggests doing activities that involve moving in many directions, such as tennis, golf or basketball, during which you have to lunge, twist or dodge. The Chinese practice called tai chi allows you to practice these kinds of movements in slow motion.

"The take away messages are: it is never too late to start exercising and some physical activity is better than nothing," Dr. Kohrt says. So no matter what your experience or skill level, staying active will help you maintain strength and function in order to age successfully.

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